The Feast of the Assumption

It is the Feast of the Assumption. In the Church calendar, this is the day Mother Mary was taken bodily up to heaven without the inconvenience of dying first. But in the older calendar of Europe, this was the time when it was recognized that the heat of summer was breaking. The Dog Days end today and Crow Season begins. This is cause for celebration!

For the northern hemisphere, it is the point in the solar year when day length is too short to build up much new heat each day. This is also when it becomes obvious that the days are shortening and the sun’s apparent motion is to the south because the changes are rapid. Whereas it took several weeks around the solstice for day length to change more than five minutes and for sunrises and sunsets to budge much from their northernmost positions, now we gain five minutes of darkness every couple days. And here in Vermont, the sun rises over a different crag on the eastern mountains each morning. There are new slants of light each day. It’s a great time to have suncatchers in the windows because every day brings a new array of serendipitous rainbows to startle you with delight.

This is also the time of year that, until very recently (maybe as late the 1950s revival of paganism), Lammas was celebrated. It was held at this time of year before the change in the calendar, and it stuck to the middle of August when the beginning of the month shifted earlier in the solar year. Proving that our ancestors, first of all, had a fine-tuned sense of time and recognized that August 1st was now a different season, and second, that the celebration meant something specific to that older solar date. I suspect that this is when the summer’s grain harvest first began to flow into bellies in the form of ale. A batch of beer put up at harvest time (a couple weeks after the solstice) would be fully mature by now. Even the lagers, which are slower to clarify, would be ready to drink. The timing works, but also the one preserved cultural reference that can be unequivocally tied to Lammas — the song, John Barleycorn — is not about bread, but about beer.

I am not fond of beer. I prefer celebrating the wine harvest. But in a time when water was impotable more or less everywhere, having a safe stream of drinkable liquid to quench the summer’s thirst was likely something near miraculous. And this was not beer as we experience it. You would need to drink an uncomfortable amount of it to get drunk because it was cut with water by half or more. It was used more like a refreshing flavoring that had the added benefit of making your need for water less likely to result in dysentery or cholera or any of the other many versions of the runs. (In a time without indoor plumbing, mind you, or indeed much of anything in the way of sanitation for many people… so utter misery even when it didn’t kill you…)

This day is also a weather marker. There is the persistent belief that if it’s sunny on Mary’s Day, then the grape harvest will be good and the winter will be mild. I am not sure whether the weather really conforms to this. It seems that a mild winter was just something good that got tacked onto all hopeful predictions. These predictions mostly come down to us from the 17th century at the earliest, and so would have been made in a very different climate from ours — the Little Ice Age, the result of the reforestation of the American continents after the Native humans were prevented from taking care of their lands. So winter really sucked! And some years summer didn’t even happen. A note on a hard freeze in July is not too rare in New England colonial weather records and personal diaries. 

So they just wanted a mild winter and would take hope for one from just about anything. But the other concern with sun in the middle of August — the grape harvest — actually has physical relevance. This is when grapes are maturing on the vine. Like all berries, it takes quite a lot of sunlight hitting leaves to make all those sugars and complex phytochemicals necessary to fermentation. Without warm sunshine, the grapes might swell with liquid, but the resultant wine will be insipid and flavorless if it manages to ferment at all. Too much cloudy weather, and you won’t get any grapes. So the wine from a grape that has sun in the middle of August is going to taste much better than that brewed from a grey August. (And now you can see what makes for a “good year” in vintages…)

I don’t have grapes here in Vermont. Not yet anyway. And I’m wondering if I want to go to that effort in such a cold climate. Perhaps I’ll plant something that is not quite hardy here now, with the expectation of seeing that change, maybe in my lifetime. We are already not the USDA growing Zone 4 that is commonly assigned to my region. I know this because my Zone 5 herbs and roses are doing just fine. It might not be too much of a stretch to hope for a more grape-friendly Zone 6 by the time the vines are ready to bear.

There are vines that bear here already, but coming from New Mexico, I’m sort of a grape snob. I don’t like Concord grape wine. The cold-adapted grapes just do not develop the tannins and bloom (oleanolic acid) that make for a rich wine. Now, this might be because we don’t have the weather, but I think it’s more the grape. The northerners were generally not bred to make wine; they’re just vine berries, many of them fairly wild — which are great for fresh eating and juice, but…

The thing about the weather in Vermont is that August is definitely the beginning of our fall. We see a decided shift to autumnal weather in the season of Lughnasadh, along with the blooming of goldenrod and the first wash of color on the tops of the maples. The mornings are cool and foggy, but it is clear and warm most afternoons, with almost no wind. It is ideal grape-producing weather. If I could get the vines to survive the winter — especially the late cold we experience in March when the vines are budding out — and then bloom reliably May, I could have muscats growing here in wild abundance, like the native vines that are presently cloaking and choking my jungle trees. (I was so very upset to discover that these hardly ever bear fruit, not even the sugary Concord grape variety…)

Not liking beer, I also don’t put much effort into that and am not too obsessed with the year’s first draft. (Ex was into that sort of thing; so I’ve learned a bit about it, but not much…) I do like growing hops, though I haven’t done that here in Vermont yet. And in any case, the hop harvest happens in July when the flowers are gathered to clarify and bitter the brew. So my preoccupations during Old Lammas run toward what to do with the ebullient squash. Happily, the easiest way to preserve the summer squash harvest is to bake it into bread — which ties very nicely with the current focus of Lammas, the bread feast. 

Today, I have a recipe for zucchini bread that includes the summer’s peaches as well as the abundant cucurbits. You can use any summer squash for the “zucchini”, but the longer varieties make for easier shredding. You can shred patty pan squash; but it’s seriously annoying, a little too much actual skin in the game, so to speak. I do not follow the instructions to leave the peel on the fruit, so it doesn’t matter if I use over-ripe yellow crookneck (which makes an almost gourd-solid rind) or tender young zucchini. I also tend to remove any well-developed seeds, but I’m not too strict on that, preferring to see that as extra protein crunch in the bread.

The one thing I am particular and exacting about is the pan preparation. Zucchini bread is sticky, almost like cake. If you don’t take precautions, the loaves are going to adhere to the pan so tenaciously that you’ll get only a small central sliver out — and spend forever on the washing up.

I started developing my pan prep routine by putting parchment paper in the pan, but the paper tends to wrinkle along the folds and you lose almost as much bread (and all of the yummy crustal layer) as without paper. So then I worked out a compromise. Because most of the sticking happens on the bottom, I cut a rectangle of parchment to fit into the bottom. I use a bit of water in the pan to make the paper lay smooth (because it will curl…). Then I use a very liberal amount of oil or melted butter to grease up the rest of the pan, paying particular attention to the corners. All this effort is rewarded when I can turn out a clean loaf each time. I only need to run a pastry knife (one of those plastic or silicon things that won’t scratch the pan) around the edges and the loaf pops right out. The paper can even be composted! (Or if you don’t do that — and you should! — at least, it’s biodegradable trash…)

Gingered Peach Pecan Zucchini Bread


2 eggs, beaten well
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup melted butter, slightly browned
1 cup finely shredded summer squash (see above)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (Penzey’s Double Vanilla is best!)

2 large-ish peaches, chopped fine (peels on)
candied ginger to taste (I used about 1/6 cup, or about 16 ~1” cubes, minced)
1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted
(optional) 1/4 cup dried cranberries (which, you’ll notice, I put in everything!)
1 cup all-purpose wheat flour
1/2 cup whole grain wheat flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground cloves


Prep the summer squash. Remove most of the peel, all of any stiff peel, and whatever seeds you don’t want in your bread. I usually do this the evening before and leave it in the fridge in a colander placed inside a bowl to let some of the liquid drain out. I also tend to grab squash from the garden as I come home from work and shred it into a bowl that fills up during the week. This is kept covered since I don’t want fridge tastes in the squash (which is remarkably good at absorbing flavors…).

When you are ready to make the bread, prep a 8”x4”x2” loaf pan (see above) and preheat the oven to 375°F. Since this recipe is to use up excess garden produce, it is good to make as many loaves at one time as you have loaf pans.

Toast the pecans, chop the peaches, and mince the candied ginger.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until just on the edge of stiff.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan while you beat the eggs. Let this cool slightly before adding it to the eggs. (Or you cook the eggs…)

Add the sugar to the eggs and beat smooth.

Add the melted butter in a thin stream, beating the mixture vigorously as it goes in.

Add the shredded squash and vanilla extract and beat smooth.

Add the chopped peach and minced candied ginger. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, stir together the flours, baking soda, salt, baking powder, and spices. Make sure all the spices and leavening agents are well distributed.

Add the pecans and cranberries (if desired) and toss them to coat with flour.

Pour the dry ingredients into the wet and stir together well. You can beat this batter quite frothy; it doesn’t stiffen the flour. I’ve found that the more air you get in the batter, the better the bread texture. Like making a cake. Only, do this by hand, or you’ll just pulverize the pecans and peaches. Alternatively, if you must use a mixer, fold in the chunky bits at the end.

Spoon into the prepared loaf pan and bake in a 375°F oven for one hour, or until the top is golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. If baking more than one loaf, put the loaf pans on a baking sheet. This makes it easier to rotate them all after about 30 minutes, so that all loaves are evenly exposed to your oven’s hottest temperatures. (This is important in all ovens, even convection ovens…)

After baking, cool the loaves in the pan for about 10 minutes. This gives the bread a bit more time to develop texture and makes it less likely to fall apart.

Run a pastry knife around the edges and turn out the loaf onto a wire rack. Let cool completely. I usually cover it with a lint-free towel and leave it overnight. You can leave the paper on the bottom of the loaf, but I usually peel it off and discard it as soon as I take the loaf out of the pan.

You can serve this warm, but it’s more likely to crumble if you do. So it’s better to wait. If you can…

I eat this bread plain; but you can add butter, jam, chutney, whatever takes your fancy. 

Again, because this is done to use up produce, most of these loaves go into the freezer. Just to make it easy to defrost in my microwave-less home (in the oven, set on “warm”), I wrap the loaves in heavy foil and then put this into a gallon freezer bag, removing as much air from the bag as I can. (I’ve even gone to the length of sucking air out… because I’m weird…) Make sure you label the bag. Even if you don’t use the foil, you’re not going to remember what recipe is inside. Place the loaves in a single layer in the freezer until they are frozen solid. Later, you can stack them up like bricks. Use them within a year. I’m pretty sure they keep longer than that, but you’ll want to have your freezer empty before the next squash deluge.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022